I’d never heard of Groningen until a few weeks ago. It’s the seventh largest city in the Netherlands with about 180,000 people and roughly 25 percent of those people are students at the University of Groningen.
This university town has one of the highest rates of cycling in Europe; 57 percent of all trips are taken on a bicycle here.
The City of Portland’s bicycle coordinator, Roger Geller, recently characterized the make-up of cyclists in Portland into these four labels:
- Fast and fearless—1 %
- Enthused and confident—7%
- Interested but concerned—60%
- No way no how—32%
Stratifying the Groningen population into these characterizations doesn’t really work because cycling is simply the norm here. However, Geller’s characterizations remind us that different people have vastly different thresholds for what constitutes safe and comfortable cycling. The majority of cyclists on the streets here appear to be confident and unconcerned despite that conditions for cycling here are not quite as optimal as Copenhagen.
The first thing I noticed when I arrived in Groningen was that I needed to be a lot more alert. When I used to get on my bike in downtown Seattle—especially at rush hour in the afternoons—I went into defense mode. Every car was a threat and so I was constantly alert until I got to very calm residential streets. Compared to Seattle, biking in Copenhagen was like taking a leisurely ride down a country road. I could zone out and relax because I was completely separated from cars in the cycle tracks and I didn’t have to think much about how to handle intersections. There were lights and signs everywhere helping cyclists safely navigate the roads. Also, in Copenhagen I quickly learned the laws and manners of the road because they were so universally followed. Groningen is a lot more like Copenhagen than Seattle, but the defensive edge I developed in Seattle has come in handy a few times here. I don’t completely trust everyone else on the road. Groningen cyclists signal sporadically and a lot of people simply look both ways and then cycle through red lights. Scrappiness seems to prevail. You figure out how to get where you need to go and you get there.
Don’t get me wrong—the City of Groningen has made substantial investments in effective bicycle infrastructure over the last 30 years and it’s a great place to ride a bike. In Groningen there is a network of cycle tracks of a very similar design to those in Copenhagen which feed cyclists into the city center and all residential streets that don’t have separated cycle tracks have speed limits of 30 km/hr (about 19 miles/hr).
What makes Groningen so different from Copenhagen in that once you’re in the network of city center streets the cycle tracks completely disappear and you all of a sudden are in a swarm of cyclists, pedestrians, and a few cars.
This is a traffic management philosophy sometimes called “naked streets”—the theory is that if all the separations between cars, bikes, and pedestrians are removed it essentially requires everyone to get along. It seems to work here. The vehicles who do brave the network of city center streets (mostly taxis, delivery trucks, and public buses) move at the same pace or slower than the cyclists. Bikers often just slip around the slowly-moving cars and continue on their way. It almost feels as if the cars have resigned themselves to the fact that they shouldn’t be there in the first place so they are as accommodating as possible of the cyclists and pedestrians. There is a lot more potential for conflict here, but it all seems to work. People stay calm and skillfully navigate around each other even when the flow of traffic is disorganized.
The youthful population of Groningen gives the city a lot of energy and offers constant people-watching opportunities. It was over 30 degrees C (90 degrees F) the first few days I was here and the public parks and green spaces in the right of ways seemed to explode with impromptu parties and sunbathers. It looked like half the city decided to skip class or call in sick. In the evenings, I’ve seen large quantities of beer being transported on bikes in a number of creative ways and packs of scantily clad, made-up girls cycling to parties while talking furiously with each other and leaving behind a cloud of perfume. The signing-while-biking phenomenon is also prevalent here. People put their headphones on and unapologetically belt it out while they’re pedaling down the street.
A few days ago I met with Prof. Johan Woltjer, the director of the Environmental and Infrastructure Planning Program at Groningen University. His program trains the transportation planners who keep the Dutch on bikes and the land use planners who protect the very delicate water systems that keep the Netherlands above water. Prof. Woltjer explained to me that in the 1960s the Netherlands implemented compact city policies to preserve the limited rural lands of this small country. He noted that compact city policies really just formalized an ethos that has been present in the Netherlands for hundreds of years to preserve city centers as meeting places and commerce hubs. Today, that ethos is still alive and you can see that the city center of Groningen is full of people shopping, working, eating, socializing, and just passing through to get to their next class or meeting. This lively city center is possible because people live close by. 78 percent of all inhabitants and 90 percent of all jobs are within a 3 km radius of the city center. 55,000 jobs are located around the city center.
Groningen is the first place I’ve ever seen speed dips for cyclists. They put these in near intersections where cyclists need to be more alert or stop for pedestrians. The speed dips not only get you to pay attention, but they’re also really fun to bike over.
They don’t have the “get-psyched-up-yellow-before-green” lights here, but they do have timers showing how much longer the light is going to be red for. These are helpful because people can shoot off a quick text, put lip gloss on, or cram for an exam if they know they have a little wait at the light.
Some of the streets near the city center without separated bike lanes have bike boxes. There are a few of these in Seattle. Bike boxes allow bikers to get across intersections first and help keep cyclists more visible to drivers. They make cycling more enjoyable too because bikers don’t get trapped behind a car breathing exhaust while waiting for a light.
One other thing I’ve noticed here is that people have pretty old, beat-up Roadster bikes (which apparently require almost no maintenance), but everyone still diligently locks their bikes up with hefty chains. My Kona sticks out a little bit. A few people on the street have actually stopped to tell me I have a nice bike. These compliments have served as good reminders to me that I need to be fastidious about locking my bike up. Groningen—and all of the Netherlands—has a problem with bike theft. In 2004, 3,200 bikes were stolen in Groningen and this prompted the city to build guarded bicycle facilities to prevent theft and free up space on the sidewalks that were being cluttered with parked bikes. The Groningen train station has a guarded bicycle parking lot that can hold 4,000 bikes. You can leave your bike there for up to 14 days.
Groningen has achieved the highest levels of cycling in Europe because the city has invested in necessary cycling infrastructure, kept the city compact, and has a uniquely youthful culture. One in four people is a student—likely without the means or the need to own a car. Cycling is the most convenient and culturally acceptable form of transportation. I think if you surveyed the population here and asked about willingness to drive a car around town at least 30 percent would respond with a “no way, no how.”
…even Portland has some catching up to do with Groningen.